Pet Therapy and Autism

by Debbie Herbert


Holy Smokes, is it the four Tuesday of the month all ready?  A little late, but here’s my ramblings for the day.


My orange tabby, Grendel, loves to block my writing – literally!

Those who take even the most casual scan of my social media, know that I am in love with all things CAT.  What you may not know is that I have an adult son with autism. I’m writing today about pet therapy with autism and people with special needs.  At first glance, I’m the least likely person to write this.  Oh, I have the caretaking role down since I have an adult son with autism. I’ve been dealing with that since back in the day when it only occurred once in 10,000 births and few had ever heard the word ‘autism.’  Then along came the movie Rainman, and – voila– everyone suddenly knew about autism.

And did I mention that my son, Byron, is afraid of animals?

Flash forward to the present – sadly, not only are people aware of the disorder, they usually have a family member, or a friend, who’s been touched with an autism diagnosis.

Wonderful avenues have opened up over the years for persons with autism and their families.  Ground-breaking therapies, public awareness and educational advancements.  Just as autism and its symptoms are different for all, so are the appropriate, alternative therapies.  There’s a whole smorgasbord:  water, dance, music, art, nutritional, occupational, massage & . . . pet therapy.

Full disclosure:  as I mentioned, my son is scared of animals.  To my knowledge, he’s never been bitten, scratched or harmed in any way by one.  Our family has had cats since Byron was young.  Up until last year, he would scream in terror if one came too close.  “Get!” he would shout in ear-splitting decibels.

The cats learned to give him a wide berth.

As an animal-lover, I wanted Byron to feel the same.  Because of his social impairments with people, I hoped he could relate to a pet.  Why couldn’t he form this kind of bond?

A wise teacher stepped in.  “Think about it, Debbie.  Cats and dogs are unpredictable.  They’ll jump on you for no reason, make all kind of strange noises and do other weird stuff.”

Byron loves routine and order.  If I look at the situation from his point of view, it has its own logic.

For other parents, pet therapy may provide their child comfort and happiness.

I visited our local humane center and spoke to the director.  She’s matched hundreds of special-needs persons with animals over the years.  What she tells the families is no different from what she encourages everyone to do:  come into the shelter with an open mind and spend time with the animals. Sit with their energy.  Observe them at play.  See which one chooses you.  Yes, certain breeds are known for being more suitable because of their temperament.  But just as everyone, challenged or not, is different — all animals have their own personality. She also said it’s acceptable, even encouraged, for families to try-out an animal in their home to make sure it’s a correct fit.  If it isn’t, an animal may be returned and adopted by someone else.

So it never hurts to provide your child with new experiences.  They may find their new best friend!  I’ve read lots of stories on bonds formed between persons with autism and pets.  Besides the usual connections with dogs and cats, there’s horseback riding and swimming with dolphins (which sounds incredible).  I even read a Guideposts Magazine article about a person with autism forming a connection with a chimpanzee at his local zoo.

Pets may not be Byron’s ‘thing’ – he’s personally into water and swims like a fish – but at least he’s grown more tolerant of them.  We have an orange tabby, Grendel, who’s doing his best to win our son over.  Grendel respects Byron’s boundaries; he sits a few feet away and observes him, as if trying to figure Byron out.

Over time, Grendel has gradually inched closer to Byron, closing the physical distance between them.  I’ve seen them stare at one other intently with bemused curiosity.  Who knows where this might lead one day?  Grendel may never inch closer, or Byron may rebuff him.

But . . . I’ve got my money on Grendel.

Do you know someone with special needs who has bonded with pet? Or have pets helped you through times of sorrow?

I would love to hear from you!